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Raja Rao (row), with Mulk Raj Anand and R. K. Narayan, is considered one of the most important twentieth century Indo-English novelists. The eldest in a Brahman family of nine children, he was born in Hassan, Mysore State, South India, on November 8, 1908 (although official records list his date of birth as November 21, 1909). Young Rao stayed with his grandfather, a Vedantist, while his father taught at Nizam’s College in the neighboring state of Hyderabad. From his grandfather, Rao absorbed a spiritual foundation in Indian philosophy that is apparent in all of his work. In 1915 Rao joined his father in Hyderabad to attend school and then went to Aligarh Muslim University in North India in 1926. There, under the guidance of Eric Dickinson, a poet and visiting professor from Oxford University, Rao’s literary sensibilities blossomed. In 1927 Rao enrolled in St. Nizam’s College in Hyderabad, majoring in English and history, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1929.

In that same year, Rao’s life changed dramatically. He won the Asiatic Scholarship of the Government of Hyderabad for study abroad and left India to study at the University of Montpellier in France. There, he met and married Camille Mouly, a French professor. She not only encouraged his writing but also supported him financially for several years.

Between 1931 and 1933, Rao published three essays and a poem written in Kannada (his mother tongue) in Jaya Karnataka, an influential journal. His earliest short stories were published in such journals as Cahiers du Sud (Paris) and Asia (New York). During this time, he was also researching the influence of India on Irish literature, but he stopped in 1933 to devote himself fully to writing. At this time, Rao returned to India for the first of his many pilgrimages for spiritual and cultural nourishment. During the next ten years, he visited many different ashrams and religious teachers, including Pandit Taranth, Ramana Maharshi, Narayana Maharaj, and Mahatma Gandhi. In the 1930’s and 1940’s Rao also was active in Indian social and political causes, such as the young Indian Socialist movement Quit India, and worked with Indian cultural organizations.

In 1938 Rao’s first novel, Kanthapura, was published in London. Praised by E. M. Forster as the best novel ever written in English by an Indian, Kanthapura is an account of nonviolent Gandhian resistance in a South Indian village. In 1943 Rao’s spiritual search appears to have been fulfilled when he met Sri Atmananda Guru of Trivandrum; Rao returned to France in 1959 only after his guru’s death. In the meantime, Rao’s early short stories and others were collected and published in 1947 as The Cow of the Barricades, and Other Stories.

In 1960, one year after his return to France and twenty-two years after Kanthapura, Rao’s second novel appeared. His ambitious masterpiece The Serpent and the Rope explores the relationship of India and Europe through the marriage of a South Indian Brahman and his French wife. In 1965 its sequel, The Cat and Shakespeare, was published. Described as a metaphysical comedy by its author, this gentle allegory blends the naturalism of the short stories with the philosophical interests of The Serpent and the Rope. Though written earlier, Rao’s minor work Comrade Kirillov was also first published in 1965 in French and then in English in 1976.

From 1965 until his retirement, Rao was a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, teaching one semester a year. His first marriage having dissolved in 1939, Rao married American actress Katherine Jones in 1965; they had a...

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son, Christopher Rama. In 1978 a second collection of short stories,The Policeman and the Rose, was published. Rao’s fifth novel, The Chessmaster and His Moves, which appeared in 1988, continued to explore Indian thought and its relationship to Western experience and challenges. The novel On the Ganga Ghat (which some have described as a collection of eleven short stories), explores life in Benaris, India’s holy city, with comic irreverence. In the 1990’s Rao produced two works of nonfiction: The Meaning of India, in which he considers India as “not a country but a perspective . . . not a climate but a mood in the play of the Absolute,” and his biography of the Mahatma Gandhi, The Great Indian Way.

Although Rao never settled permanently in India, he is regarded as the most “Indian” of the Indo-English writers, as well as the most sophisticated and philosophically complex. Largely autobiographical, his works deal with the East-West encounter and the relationship between male and female. The central theme is the quest for the absolute, the ultimate reality of life, and Rao’s major novels reflect his own spiritual search. Kanthapura explores the reawakening of the Indian spirit through the philosophy of action (karma yoga). The Serpent and the Rope, steeped in Vedantic philosophy of advaita (nondualism), develops the path of knowledge (gyana yoga) as a means of self-realization. The Cat and Shakespeare is the first of Rao’s novels in which a character not only seeks truth but also finds it and comes to live it through the path of love and devotion (bhakti yoga). Rao’s works are likened in structure and style to Indian legendry history, especially the puranas. Inspired by William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and others who created an Irish English, Rao skillfully adapts the English language to suit Indian sensibilities and his own narrative purposes in order to “convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own,” as he puts it.

Despite his small output and the long silences between his works, Rao’s challenging fiction has been well received. His short stories are universally acclaimed, and The Serpent and the Rope is among the greatest metaphysical novels written in English. Rao was awarded the Indian Literary Academy Award in 1964 and received the Padma Bhushan from the Indian government in 1969. He was again recognized in 1988 with the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. A literary award in his name honors the best work of the South Asian diaspora. Although criticized by some as too philosophical and digressive in style, Rao is internationally acknowledged as a significant, if not prolific, modern novelist. He has created a truly Indian novel in English, saturated with epic vision, philosophical depth, and symbolic richness.


Critical Essays